Oracle works with the National Federation of the Blind on new projects.
by Kate Pavao, August 2009
Technology continues to change the way we work, connecting us in new ways. But for the 1.3 million severely blind people in the United States, technological advancements often pose new challenges. “One of the biggest problems of blindness is access to information,” says Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Jernigan Institute, a research and training facility based in Baltimore, Maryland. “Printed information is everywhere. Computerized information systems are frequently built with graphic elements that aren’t accessible to a blind person.”
Riccobono and his team expect the number of sight-impaired working people to increase as aging employees delay retirement. This makes creating accessible technology increasingly critical. For the past decade, Oracle has been dedicated to accessibility, a commitment strengthened through its recent collaboration with the NFB.
In July 2008, Oracle sponsored the NFB’s annual convention and announced a plan to collaborate on developing a Center of Excellence for Enterprise Accessibility at the Jernigan Institute. Since then, Oracle has installed a PC at the institute and performed product evaluations with several NFB staff. The institute serves both visually impaired workers and the employers who train them. “This is not a welfare-to-work ticket,” explains Anne Taylor, the NFB’s director of access technology. “This is a fully integrated working environment that we want blind people to go into. We have a lot of success doing this.”
As part of its commitment to the collaboration, Oracle cohosted a session on accessibility at Oracle OpenWorld 2008 and continues to sponsor NFB’s education-related programs, such as this year’s Youth Slam, which encourages sight-impaired students to consider jobs they may have previously thought impossible. Oracle has also increased its testing by disabled people in its usability labs, as well as in the workplace.
Better Products for Everyone
The NFB’s goals are clear from its use of words like access technology over adaptive or assistive technology. “We want full functionality,” says Riccobono. “And secondly, ease of use. A blind user shouldn’t have to do somersaults on the keyboard to get information.” With the JAWS (Job Access with Speech) screen reader from Freedom Scientific, for example, visually impaired users can navigate applications such as Oracle’s PeopleSoft solutions and Oracle’s Siebel Public Sector by listening to their computers read content out loud.
“Ensuring this kind of accessibility is important to Oracle on an ethical level,” notes Peter Wallack, accessibility program director at Oracle. But it also helps Oracle’s core business. The federal government is Oracle’s largest customer: more than 100 federal government agencies run Oracle applications, including all 15 of the cabinet-level agencies. Oracle products need to meet specific accessibility standards in order to be purchased by these agencies.
Paying attention to accessibility helps Oracle reach customers in other ways as well. “Roughly 15 percent of the population has some type of disability, and we want to be able to sell our products to them,” says Wallack. He stresses another critical point in Oracle’s relationship with the NFB: focusing on accessibility creates benefits for all Oracle users. “There’s a concept called Design for All, which goes beyond just making a product accessible for a person with a disability,” he says. “It encourages you to think about how you make one product that is better for everyone, and this translates to a parallel activity where usability engineers and designers perform testing to measure task completion rates and general usability.”
Taylor says this kind of thinking puts Oracle in a very advantageous position. “The fact that Oracle understands that it’s necessary to be prepared for what’s to come, as far as accessibility is concerned, shows that the company really is serious about serving its customers,” she says, “no matter what type of customers they’re going to be getting.”
Kate Pavao is a freelance writer and contributor to Profit Online.